"September 21, 1945. That was the night I died."
World War Two is over and American soldiers are on their way to Japan. In a train station in Kobe lies a dying boy whose only possession is a small metal tin containing ashes. His name, he tells us in a voice-over, is Seita. He used to have a sister, called Setsuko. This film is their story.
Grave of the Fireflies is a Studio Ghibli film, but put all ideas of Hayao Miyazaki out of your head. Miyazaki makes family films. This film is about two children, 14-year-old Seita and 4-year-old Setsuko, but the downbeat nature of its story makes it one of the most traumatic films I've seen, animated or otherwise. It was a commercial failure during its original theatrical run, although it's since gone on to fame and critical praise from all sides. It even got a live-action remake in 2005, on the 60th anniversary of the war's conclusion. Isao Takahata was its director and scriptwriter. He adapted a semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, who went through more or less these events in World War Two and eventually turned them into fiction in an attempt to exorcise his demons.
Roger Ebert calls this one of the greatest-ever war films. For historical perspective alone it's probably a must-watch for Westerners. It's a Studio Ghibli production so its visuals are flawless, in poetic effect probably surpassing anything a live-action director could have achieved. (A live-action film probably couldn't have struck such a delicate balance between the war elements and the down-to-earth scenes.) I'd have to agree with the general consensus that it's not just an important anime film, but an important film.
However be warned: it ain't cheerful. There's almost no plot, but simply the struggle of two siblings who've lost their parents. Dad's at sea with the Japanese navy and there's never any doubt about his fate, except in the minds of his faithful children. As for Mum... well, it's war. What do you think? The film's opening scene warns us what to expect. This is fucking grim stuff, not so much in what's actually on-screen (the film can surprise you with beauty where you wouldn't expect it) but simply in the audience's fearful anticipation of what we know will happen. Seita at one point promises to stay with Setsuko forever. Since the film opens with Seita's death... well, don't expect pixie dust and Disney endings.
As an aside, Disney have been buying the Western rights to Studio Ghibli movies and releasing them in lovingly produced DVD editions. The only one they ignored was Grave of the Fireflies. Gee, I can't think why.
It's possible to read a lot into this film, but what's actually on-screen is just a simple, honest story. You could call it an anti-war film and it's certainly true that we see no positive consequences of war but instead a whole mountain of ghastly ones, but it's no message film. There's no political dimension. Soldiers, planes and bombs are faceless things, mostly going about their business elsewhere. The film's not interested in the actual fighting. Some people have called this an anti-American film, but frankly this says more about them than it does about the movie. It's hard to see where one might get this notion, unless you think it's a dangerous political statement to see that Japanese people have children too. You could more legitimately claim that it's a film about pride. Japanese pride was a lethal ingredient in their wartime leaders' psychology, but more relevantly for this film we see Seita make one big decision that's based more in pride than rational thinking.
At the end of the day, the original book wasn't political. It wasn't written for the sake of addressing war. Akiyuki Nosaka wrote it for the memory of his sister.
This movie was paired with the downright adorable My Neighbour Totoro
, both on release and during production. Ghibli's animators were liable to forget which film they were working on, which will warp your mind if you've seen both movies. However one thing they both do superbly is to evoke childhood. Setsuko isn't a sassy Hollywood four-year-old but the genuine article, while Seita is a fourteen-year-old being forced into decisions for which he's just not ready. Isao Takahata insisted on casting children of the correct age to voice the characters, scouring the Kansai region because they had to have the right accent. He chose the voice of Setsuko after hearing her say just two sentences. "My name is Ayano Shiraishi. I am five years old." However in fact those were the only lines she'd been told to say in the audition, since the company's leaders had assumed that Ayano would be too young to play such a role.
Another animated film, Barefoot Gen, is about the survivors at Hiroshima. It's less famous than Grave of the Fireflies, but apparently no more cheerful. This film is depressing but beautiful. It's probably possible to watch it without crying, but I wouldn't like to take bets on it. It's powerful. Strongly recommended for those who appreciate this sort of thing, but don't expect to have fun.